My wife is a Mormon feminist, and I share many of her views. We have two children who we love very much and we want to raise them in a way that will keep them in the faith and close to the Spirit, while still hoping to instill in both of them progressive, compassionate views. We want them both to feel valuable and loved, by us and by our Heavenly Parents, despite whatever cultural pressures may be placed on them.
Obviously, there are some cultural elements of Mormonism that make some of these goals of ours difficult. Sometimes I look at my daughter and my son and simply don’t know how to teach them in a way that will help them find the deep spirituality and closeness to God that I have found within the core doctrines of the Church, while still helping them see and avoid some of the destructive attitudes and double standards that are applied against women in the Church. We want our son to see women as peers, as equals, as friends, not as opposites to somehow balance out prescribed, enforced gender roles. We want our daughter to feel the liberation of being her own person, living a life of intelligence, spirituality, and self esteem, feeling like she can do good both in the home and out in the wider world. We want that for both of our children.
Sometimes I find my wife crying in desperation and anguish over the conflict she feels inside. She has a deep testimony and has had many spiritual experiences that have kept her in the Church. But there is a constant tension, as she resists some of the hurtful tendencies of Mormon culture and the persistence of certain sexist attitudes. She especially feels the ache towards our Heavenly Mother. She wants to get closer to Her, this figure of Divine Feminism, whom we give quiet lip service to in the Church (but not publicly, and not too loudly). She is hidden behind a veil and She has become taboo, which wrenches my wife’s heart.
I want to help her. I want to help my children as they grow up. Frankly, sometimes I also want to help myself. These questions aren’t so easy for me either. I have put forth a great deal of prayer, and felt inspiration at times, but I would also love to hear other perspectives. Help?
Seeking a Better Way
I was thinking about you and your family tonight when I was sitting in synagogue with my family. It’s Rosh Hashanah—Jewish New Year’s—the opening night of a demanding 10 days of collective reflection and repentance culminating in Yom Kippur.
The collective text at our synagogue is the 1200-page High Holy Days Reconstructionist Prayer Book, a book I’ve been studying 10 days each fall for the last 13 years.
But this is the first time I’ve ever lifted the 1200-page prayerbook from the synagogue. (Rabbi Y.: I’ll bring it back tomorrow. Promise.) And I did it for you.
I did it because I wanted you to see this picture:
It’s a picture of a prayer called the Hashkivenu the congregation says at the beginning of the hard work of the High Holy Days:
“Help us to lie down, Dear One, our God, in peace, and let us rise again, our sovereign, to life. Spread over us the shelter of your peace. Decree for us a worthy daily lot, and redeem us for the sake of your great name, and enfold us in the wings of your protection, for you are our redeeming guardian. Truly, a sovereign, gracious, and compassionate God are you. Guard our going forth each day for life and peace, now and always. Spread over us the shelter of your peace. Blessed are you, Compassionate One, who spreads your canopy of peace over all your people Israel and over Jerusalem.”
And you see those words in Hebrew arched above the town like a canopy? That’s the last line of the Hashkivenu prayer.
If I knew where you lived, and if I could read and write Hebrew like my husband, I would write that canopy in the sky over your house, Better Way Brother. Because I think you could use a little shelter of peace. I’m not worried about your children. I really think they’re going to be okay. They are growing up with the powerful, indelible example of loving parents in an egalitarian marriage, with each partner having and pursuing their own goals. It sounds like they are also getting a solid education in the best aspects of our faith. Maybe as they grow older you’ll give them a vocabulary for naming without malice or judgment the differences between the progressive Mormonism they were raised with and the more conservative Mormonism they may observe in extended family and fellow ward members. Naming differences can help destigmatize them, after all.
Nope. I’m not worried about your children. The ones I’m worried about right now are your wife and you. It sounds to me like you both are going through a heck of a faith transition, when some of peace and solace you once found in faith are being replaced with questions, struggles, and even despair—and it’s exhausting. I know. I’ve been there. The big black dog of grief has you in its mouth, and it’s shaking you like a rag doll.
Know that you are not alone in wrestling with hard questions about your faith. So very not alone. (If you’re new to faith transition, I might recommend plugging into this podcast to keep you company.) And many of the questions you and your wife wrestle with as Mormon feminists—these questions are not going to get cleared up anytime soon, I’m afraid. We Mormon feminists, we’re in it for the long haul. And that means we’ve got to get used to living with tensions, and remember that tensions can be the place where we encounter God.
For to be a human seeking the divine is inevitably to live with tensions. To be a member of a religious community is inevitably to live with tensions. To be a progressive Mormon in the early twenty-first century is inevitably to live with tensions. And in some times and some places, those tensions can be fearful and even debilitating. But we are not meant to work out the hard stuff alone. We are meant to do it under the shelter of God’s love and care. And yet so many Mormons—progressive ones, yes, but those who live with other tensions too—feel so very anxious and ashamed. As if having questions or hungering for more or feeling dissatisfied with the way things are disqualified us from God’s core promises.
We’ve got to find a way to claim for ourselves the overarching canopy of peace and comfort despite the tensions—a sense that God’s core guarantees remain intact regardless of circumstance. And we’ve got to offer it to one another.
In August, I heard the great Mormon feminist writer Carol Lynn Pearson talk about how and why she stayed with the LDS Church. And one of her key strategies was refusing to believe in teachings she found offensive. I too decided long ago that God was not a jerk. And if one rules out the idea that God is a jerk, then it makes it much easier to see the disappointments and limitations of Mormonism as belonging to this particular moment in Mormon history: our time, and our people.
I was thinking about our people, our Mormon people, and all the goodness and wisdom I find among us, and yet how so often we are pulling so hard we seem not to be able to reach up and take in that canopy of peace over our heads. It’s like we are always out on those plains, pulling hard. But even when the oxcarts were breaking down, even when we did not think to look up, there was always a canopy over our heads. There is a canopy over our heads now. Ask God for permission to feel it. And when you learn how to feel it, take someone else by the hand, and help them reach up and feel it.
And perhaps then you will feel less alone.
Readers, what shelter can you offer Seeking a Better Way?
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